Sam in The Marshall Islands


as I fly away

“It’s a shame that we have to live, but it’s a tragedy that we get to live only one life.”

~Jonathan Safran Foer

If you haven’t heard through some means, my time spent in the Marshall Islands has been cut short. I am currently writing this somewhere over the Pacific Ocean between Majuro and Honolulu. My heart is torn. My emotions have been all over the place in the last 96 hours.

There has been a recent dengue fever outbreak in the Marshall Islands. Dengue fever is a disease spread through mosquitos. Once a mosquito bites an infected person, they carry that virus on to the next host. The virus is also spread to the infected mosquito’s offspring. Dengue fever is endemic to some areas, such as Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In these countries, the government and health organizations are always prepared to deal with a dengue outbreak. Typically, experts will spray bushes and quickly try to eliminate breeding grounds of the infected mosquitos. A fast response can really help to reduce the spread of the disease.

The dengue virus has four strains, differing in severity. The least sever strain may clear up in a week despite that there are no vaccines or medications to treat anything aside from the symptoms.  The more severe strains have devastating effects. Dengue hemorrhagic fever, a more severe strain, is very painful and can include bleeding from the eyes, ears, and mouth. Death is a possibility at this stage. In addition to the threat of the more severe strains, when an individual has previously had the less severe strain, the more severe strains are even more life threatening.

The dengue fever epidemic in the Marshall Islands is a new occurrence for the country. This is the first time that the country has had an outbreak of dengue. They are experiencing difficulties with getting the situation under control. Because they were not prepared for such an outbreak, as countries where the disease is endemic would be, they could not take immediate action to control the situation. Soon after the dengue cases began to appear, the country ran out of dengue fever test kits. More were shipped to the country right away, but it was only 900 more. When the outbreak began, there were no experts in the country. The CDC has since sent in three experts, and the WHO has sent in one. Though cases began to appear around October 25th, attempting to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and spraying of mosquito-infested areas is just starting to begin.

This disease is a prefect storm for the Marshall Islands. The country has never had this happen before. This species of mosquito likes to live in places near seas-level, around artificial water containers (which are in extreme abundance in the Marshall Islands because they collect rain water) and the like to live in places of dense population. The country also could suffer because there is only one hospital, which is small and understaffed. Blood transfusions are often necessary in hemorrhagic cases, and the Marshall Islands does not have a blood bank, so first a donor must be found and then the blood must be tested for 48 hours before a transfusion can happen. The geography of the Marshall Islands could also cause trouble. With only one plane running for Air Marshall Islands, it could be difficult for an infected individual to get the medical treatment they need on the main island. On top of that, the locals do not seem to see the severity of the situation and, rather than trying to protect themselves from mosquitos with bug spray and mosquito coils, they go about their daily life. And once bitten by an infected bug, the host does not show symptoms for about one week, so the disease could spread in that time if another uninfected mosquito bites the host.

These conditions make the dengue fever outbreak a very serious situation. It is the reason that I have left the country. WorldTeach has not made evacuation mandatory at this time, but they have given the volunteers the option, and most of the Majuro volunteers (Majuro has about 250 cases) are leaving. Two other volunteers are on the plane with me now, and one will leave once she is released from the hospital. Monica, who taught with me at NVTI has been in the hospital for more than one week. She has dengue fever and is in a lot of pain. I have been told that she does not have hemorrhagic, but I know that she has been bleeding from the gums. The last I had heard from her is that she is moving into the critical state, but that she is hoping to be released on Friday this week.

WorldTeach has been very cautious with their volunteers after the devastating loss of a Marshall Islands volunteer last year in a boating accident.

It was a very difficult decision (perhaps the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make), and I am not sure if it will ever sit completely well with me. I made the decision after speaking with my family and talking with Monica. It seemed like the wise choice, though it may not have been the choice I wanted to make.

Saying goodbye to my students was very difficult. Hearing pleas of “Sam, don’t go” from Jonitha made it that much harder. I will truly miss all of my students and I wish that I could have spent more time with them. Perhaps some day I will be able to return to finish out my duty, and if I cannot do so in the RMI, I will make up for it elsewhere. I committed to a year of service, and I will have to complete the rest in some other form.

There are many things that I will miss about the Marshall Islands… and sadly I did not realize it until I was saying goodbye. It’s strange how once you begin to walk away you see how great it was. The struggles that I went through were indeed all worth it for the love I felt from my students as I left them today. I often did not feel like my students cared about my class or really enjoyed me as a teacher, but that was certainly not the case. Though I was sad to leave them, I was happy to see that I made them happy. I know that many did not learn a lot during the 3 months I spent as their teacher, but they made it clear to me that I made some kind of difference in their life, and that sits well with me. I could only imagine how they would feel after a full school year as my students. I hope that the students take me up on my offer and write me letters and stay in touch. I do want them to know that I care about them and wish nothing but the best for all of them in life.

As for the volunteers that I am leaving behind, I hope that the remainder of the school year goes well. Keep your heads up and push through because when you say goodbye you will know it was worth the struggles. I hope that you all can stay healthy and that you do not even have to consider leaving early. Have safe travels wherever you may go next. And be wise during mid-service… really. 

second guest speaker

In the last two weeks, I have welcomed two guest speakers into my classroom. Guest speakers are not only a great way to keep myself out of doing work, but it also allows for the students to hear a new voice in the classroom, which keeps them interested. I wouldn’t want to listen to my monotone foreign voice everyday either. The guest speakers were in for two very unrelated purposes, but they both provided new material to the students and kept them engaged. (To read about the first guest speaker, check the previous post)

On Thursday the 27th, a local non-profit sent a group of workers to my classroom and to my fellow volunteer Monica’s classroom. The group is named Youth to Youth and they came to talk to my students about sexual education, drug and alcohol awareness, and health. I am teaching 11th and 12th grade, so my students range from ages 15 to 20. In the United States, students in these grades know about these things and by this age they may have known for years. But here, that is not the case. I found out that this was all new to almost all of my students, as in they did not know about any of this before. Students who have not only hit puberty but passed it never knew what was happening. This was true for the girls, which is even more shocking as I know that some of my female students have already had children.

Youth to Youth came into my classroom and spoke with the boys; the girls were in Monica’s room. These seven gentlemen spoke with the students about changes in the male and female bodies and discussed methods of contraception (including passing out condoms and a demonstrating how to put a condom on (on a wooden penis model of course)). They also discussed sexually transmitted infections. To my surprise, they even briefly touched on increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and, though the RMI has hardly contributed to this problem, they will be among the first to feel the effects of rising sea levels. I could only infer what was being taught from the diagrams because the presentation was in Marshallese. However, I could tell that the students were engaged. They asked questions and were literally on the edges of their seats. The weird cartoon of a penis chasing a vagina around was probably part of the reason for that.

Youth to Youth provides a much needed service in this country. I was pleased to have them in my classroom. They disseminate information that is much needed and vital to a healthy life. Teenage pregnancy and STIs are two problems that haunt this country. Diabetes is another silent killer here, literally. I do not have enough information to intelligently discuss the diabetes issue here, but I know that it stems from the poor nutrition citizens have practiced, mostly due to the cheapness and ease of access of those unhealthy foods. Trying to base a diet on white rice is possible, but it must be accommodated with the right foods. I’ve heard numbers as high as 90% of adults in the RMI having type-2 diabetes, but those numbers may be heavily skewed. The Diabetes Wellness Center does a lot of work toward fixing that problem.

As for the sexual health of this country, I do know that promiscuity has strong roots in the culture. At a young age children begin having sex. This is simply one of the steps of having a female friend. The practice of waiting until marriage is almost unheard of here, because formal marriage does not really exist, and when it happens the couple has been together for years and have many children and only at this point do other sexual relationships cease. I would assume that many of my students have been sexually active for years, and they were sexually active without any knowledge of what it means. These practices have led to teenage pregnancy and STI spread. Luckily this country has been blessed with an extremely low count of HIV and AIDs. Trying to keep HIV and AIDs out of the country has been a top priority, which is why myself and all other volunteers were tested before arrival. Due to the high rate of sexual encounters and presence of other STIs that make transmission of HIV easier, the disease could spread quickly throughout the country and have a devastating toll.

I am glad that my students have at least been had one chance to hear this information that they should have been given years ago. Though they may have only spent 45 minutes of their entire life learning about this, this information is easy to remember and can change the lifestyle of these 130 students. Most importantly, my students are aware of their choices. They know that prevention is possible and pregnancy does not have to be a guarantee. Knowledge is powerful, regardless of how menial that knowledge may be.

first guest speaker

In the last two weeks, I have welcomed two guest speakers into my classroom. Guest speakers are not only a great way to keep myself out of doing work, but it also allows for the students to hear a new voice in the classroom, which keeps them interested. I wouldn’t want to listen to my monotone foreign voice everyday either. The guest speakers were in for two very unrelated purposes, but they both provided new material to the students and kept them engaged.

On Tuesday the 18th, I welcomed my friend and co-volunteer Daniel DiDonna into my classroom and handed my classes over to him. Daniel is a deaf WorldTeach volunteer, and his work here is unprecedented. Daniel can read lips extremely well and can speak English almost perfectly. He has a hearing implant, but rarely uses it. Before his senior year at Gallaudet University, an all-deaf university in Washington, DC, where he was the valedictorian, Daniel came here as in intern in the summer of 2010. It was the internships maiden year and a deaf Marshall Islands-born student, who was the connection back to the RMI, joined Daniel. She was the first deaf Marshallese person to go to college. Upon completing his degree in the spring of 2011, Daniel felt the desire to return to this small island nation and make a difference. To start the summer of 2011, Daniel was the liaison to the new interns from Gallaudet, but he is now here as a teacher. However, his teaching is far different from my own.

The deaf community in the Marshall Islands is a small one. It is also quite spread out, as everything in this nation is. But these are the very reasons why the country needs assistance in teaching its deaf citizens. Many will note that the Ministry of Education in this country needs help, and that same help is needed for the special education department at the MOE. There are not enough special education teachers, and, according to Daniel, only one knows enough American Sign Language (ASL) to teach it effectively. That teacher is Daniel’s host mother. Between the deaf people being spread out and not many in this country being able to communicate with them effectively, they suffer. And before a student can learn other skills through ASL, they first must understand ASL, and that skill is also very limited. Daniel’s goal here is to improve the students’ ASL skills and to improve their other skills at the same time, mostly English; ASL is strongly based in English.

Daniel is taking a teaching tour through the most heavily deaf populated areas of the country. He just finished a two months stint at one end of Majuro and has begun another same length term at the other end, and in January he will head out to Ebeye, on Kwajalein atoll, where there is presently no deaf assistance. He has been trying to pack a lot into these short stays, but any progress is positive. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he isn’t in the classroom. He spends time teaching other teachers and employees of local business (banks, the hospital, and others) ASL. Daniel also works with deaf adults in Majuro. They work with him as unpaid teaching assistance, hoping that they can someday pass the test to become the RMIs first deaf teachers.

Daniel is hoping that he can have a lasting impact on the deaf community in this country. In addition to teaching special education teachers, business employees, and deaf adults ASL, he wants to start a deaf club that can continue on after he leaves. The deaf club will give the deaf population a chance to see each other and communicate. Too often the deaf people never talk to anyone; they are often pushed aside. Many deaf adults in this country never learned ASL or lost what they learned because they never got a chance to use it. Some of the deaf students here do not know that they are smart and the community typically does not think that they are capable.

I brought Daniel into my classroom to encourage my students to think in a new way. They were able to forget about English, forget about Marshallese, and instead connect hand motions to their thoughts. While what they were taught may not stay with them long term, it gets them to think. They can see that even without hearing, you can learn things. Understanding that this language exists also allows for them to understand who is in their community. With my very shallow knowledge of ASL, I may be able to add on to their ASL vocabulary and give them some opportunities to use it in the future. My real hope is that my students will no longer look at a deaf child signing to another deaf child and think that they are bwebwe (crazy). That is often a cause for the lack of improvement of a deaf persons vocabulary here, the community pushes them away.

ASL is very easy to learn and is a great addition to ones prior knowledge. It also allows for basic communication with a new group of people. A goal of mine upon returning to the United States is to learn ASL to its extent. Perhaps I could even connect it with my goal to become a professor and teach through ASL.

the sounds of a language

The difficulty of learning another language is massive. I am currently on both sides of this struggle, as a teacher and a learner. Learning vocabulary and sentence structure is overwhelming, especially when the two languages have absolutely no relation, as is the case with Marshallese and English. An even more difficult aspect of learning the language is hearing it and furthermore connecting what is heard with what comes out of the mouth.

Sometimes, and especially when the native language and the new language are not related, the learner has difficult hearing and detecting some of the sounds of that language. An example of this is with native Asian language speakers speaking English and the sound of the letter l. The sound is occasionally pronounced to replicate that of the letter r. This is simply because the speaker’s ear is not attuned to detect the difference and, therefore, he or she will use the wrong pronunciation. The error often lies not just in the ability to produce a sound, but also in the ability to hear a sound.

After giving my students a spelling test and seeing how the students performed, I noticed a slight pattern emerging. Often, students wrote the word “do” rather than the word “to,” “diver” (I assume they were thinking “divver”) rather than “differ”, “pilled” rather than “build,” and “ear” rather than “hear.”

As I went over the tests with the students in the following class period, I had them say the words and I discussed the difference, though slight, between the pronunciation of the correct spellings and the erred spellings that I had seen on their tests. Feeling as though this was insufficient and the students had probably not gotten much out of the lesson, I felt it was necessary to talk about pronunciation further. I also felt the personal need to figure out why these letters and sounds are mixed so often.

With just a brief amount of shallow research, my questions were answered and it suddenly clicked.

In English, we have voiced and voiceless pronunciations. For example, the pronunciation of d in “do” is voiced and the t in “to” is voiceless. Try making each of these sounds with a finger placed on the front of your throat. If pronounced correctly, you can feel the vibration with the pronunciation of the d but not the t. You can also try plugging your ears and pronouncing these letter sounds. The d sounds very different than the t, which is almost silent. The sounds for these letters are made in the same way, the tip of the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, near where the teeth begin. Air is then held back and let out suddenly. The only difference is in the vocal chords. The same is also true for the voiced g and the voiceless k. Try saying “bag” and “back” with a finger against your throat. Also, the v is voiced, while the f is not (try “save” and “safe”). The b is voiced and the p is not (“bad” and “pad”). Others include the voiced z and voiceless s (“zap” and “sap”), the voiced j and voiceless ch (“jeep” and “cheap”), and the voiced sh sound in “she” and the voiceless s sound in “measure” (this is also the –ge sound, like in age).  Another voiced and voiceless pair are the voiced th and the voiceless th. The two ways to pronounce this sound are hard to detect, especially because native English speakers rarely think about the difference. Try to feel for the difference of the th sound in “brother” and “brothel.” The sound in “brother” is voice and in “brothel” is not. A mistaking of these two sounds may lead to some odd pronunciations. While the others voiced and voiceless pairs are fairly easily distinguishable just by their spellings, the two sounds of th are not as easily detectible. For these, it is a matter of memorizing and recognizing patterns.

Before arriving in the RMI, I had tried to learn two languages, Spanish and Latin, which we did speak plenty of in class. These two languages and English come from the same ancestor, Latin, and this made pronunciation quite easy fro me. But now I’m seeing Marshallese, where a k is sometimes pronounced like a g and bs and ps are almost interchangeable based on the location in the word. Many of the letters in Marshallese are very similar to each other.

I’ve realized that there are two parts of a spelling test and the spelling aspect might be less important. I think it’s more important that the student hears the sounds I am making. If a student spells “to” as “do,” it is likely because of he or she did not hear me correctly. I think it’s more important that the student can detect the sounds. Spelling errors are simply the result of not following the strange rules and peculiarities are this strange language. I don’t mind if a student spells “might” as “mite” as much because at least I can be sure that they heard the word right and they know that the letters that they wrote make those sounds. I mean, “mite” is a real word. This allows students to express themselves correctly, even if it is among spelling errors.

Another great revelation I had with just a little bit of research helped me to understand the wild behavior of the letter j in Marshallese. Before 100 years ago, Marshallese was not written with Roman characters. Putting a language into letters that already have sounds attached to them is not easy, and it is certainly not exact. The letter j in Marshallese covers the sounds we apply to s, z, ch, j, sh, and the s sound in measure and age. Though I know this and I was able to correctly pronounce most words (my Marshallese pronunciation is actually pretty good and I am very good at spelling Marshallese words that I have never seen before), researching it really allowed me to understand why they are all assigned the letter j and how to differentiate the sounds.

These six sounds are all either affricate or fricative. A fricative is a sound made by allowing a small amount of air through, like with the sh sounds and the s and z sounds. An affricate is very similarly made. First the air is blocked off, then let through a small opening, like the ch and j sounds. The location in the mouth in which these sounds are made are also very similar. All six of these sounds are either alveolar or post-alveolar. The alveolar sounds are s and z and the post-alveolar sounds are ch, j, and the sh sounds. They are located in a nearly identical space.

With the two criteria, location of the sound and how it is produced, being so close, it makes sense that the character j could be assigned to all of these sounds.

However, since the j exists in both languages, it leads to problems on both side, English-speakers frequently have no idea which sound to use for a j in Marshallese, and Marshallese-speakers make many spelling errors by putting a j where an s, z, -dge, ch, sh, or –ge should be in English.

Simply by understanding the sounds of our language, how they are made, what symbols represent them in phonetics, and how sounds are related really helps to interpret the struggles that people have when trying to learn a new language. This can also help you learn a new language. Regardless of the language, the characters, or the dialect, the sounds we can make with out mouths remain the same and, therefore, an understanding of this should always be the first step to learning a language. It can also help to improve one’s speech of a native language.

Below is a phonetics chart of the consonants and a brief explanation of what those terms mean and what those odd characters refer to. If you haven’t noticed, I’m finding this to be quite fascinating. Perhaps phonetics or phonology could be my calling, it’s somewhat sociological.




















p   b



t    d



k    g







tʃ  dʒ






f    v

θ  ð

s    z

ʃ  ʒ
































































run (also ‹r›, ‹ɻ›)







**The /x/ sound is not common in English and is that of the Scottish pronunciation of loch (lä-kh)

Method of production

nasal – produced by breath resonating in the nose

plosive – air is held back and suddenly let out

fricative – made by the friction of breath through a narrow opening

affricate – a plosive, immediately followed by a fricative -

approximant – made by bringing one articulator (the tongue or lips) close to another without actually touching it

lateral – formed by partial closure of the air passage by the tongue.

Location of the sound

bilabial – closure or near closure of the lips

labiodental – made with the lips and teeth

dental – the tip of the tongue against the upper front teeth

alveolar – the tip of the near the ridge of the upper front teeth

post-alveolar – slightly further back than where alveolar sounds are made

palatal – the tongue is placed against the hard palate

velar – the back of the tongue near the soft palate.

glottal – produced down in the glottis

strep throat and spelling

Last Sunday the 11th, I was split between going to Tide Table while watching the Michigan football game (the first ever night game being played at The Big House and against Notre Dame) and meeting up with an Australian volunteer for a brunch buffet at the Marshall Islands Resort (MIR). ESPN is the only US network I can find at restaurants and around noon on Sundays they air the primetime college football game (since its Saturday night back in the US), so when I get the opportunity to watch a game, rarely will I pass it up. (I am writing this on a Sunday at Tide Table watching a game at the moment actually.) But, I didn’t know how much long Matt would be in Majuro. He came in due to sickness and an injury and had to hang around for a couple weeks to get antibiotic injections. I ended up making my decision based on what happened at the US Open that day. When I saw that Roger Federer had lost to Djokovic after being up two sets to none, I felt very odd about sports and I was somewhat depressed. I didn’t feel like watching a sporting event at that point… but I’m sure Matt was happy about it. (By the way, I did catch the last 30 seconds of the Michigan game. There was a TV on nearby at MIR. It turns out that was all I needed to see, it was very exciting. I felt like my sports karma had turned around).

So we dined. We dined like Kings. Pancakes with fruit and whipped cream, turkey and stuffing, eggs and bacon, more bacon, French toast, cheesecake, fruit, cole slaw, and sushi, of which I ate a lot, and I don’t even like sushi. There was a sushi bar, and it was as fresh as it gets, so I couldn’t pass it up. There was also a lot more that I just didn’t have time or space to get to. That included an omelet bar, chicken, taco salad, sweet and sour fish, soup, which I didn’t see until afterwards, ham, and a pasta salad. It was magnificent. I was able to eat of all this and endure the hours of swallowing while suffering through what ended up being the early stages of strep throat. My throat had been hurting for a couple of days and I could tell that my lymph nodes were beginning to swell, but I had been fighting off a minor cold for a few weeks, so I didn’t think much of it. I just took some ibuprofen and continued on. As I was eating pancake after pancake and talking with Matt, I told him that my throat had been hurting. He told me that strep throat had been going around lately, as one of the field directors had it, and that I might want to look into it more. I hadn’t had strep throat in years. I think that last time I had it was before I had my tonsils taken out, and that was when I was 8 years old, 13 years ago.

Sure enough, I woke up the next morning and thought that maybe I should not go to school and get checked out by the doctor. So I stopped into my director’s (principal’s) office on Monday and let him know I’d be out for the day. I put a note on my door and headed straight to Majuro Clinic to see Dr. P. I found a taxi fairly quickly on a wretchedly rainy day and basically guessed where the clinic was, I was right. I was third to see the doctor and it was the quickest visit I’d even had. I rarely get sick and never get sick enough to see a doctor, so maybe I forgot what it was supposed to be like, but this was unbelievably fast. I told Dr. P that I thought it was strep throat and that my glands had been swollen. He asked how long, I said a couple of days, and he said okay, and asked me something about my tonsils. I said that I don’t have any. He said okay, let me look. Bing, bang, boom. Diagnosed. We walked out of that room, he put 30 pills in an envelope and said take three a day, one with each meal, for ten days. And I asked when I’d stop being contagious. He told me it would be about 24-48 hours. It was about 10am when I took my first pill, so 48 hours would be Wednesday at 10am, just after I would start teaching.

Monday and Tuesday were full of lounging. I didn’t teach either day, and didn’t know what to do. I had already planned out what to do for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, which was a lesson about some spelling words I had given my students on the Friday before. I gave them a list of the 300 most common words in the English language and told them that we would be having a test over some of them on Friday. I gave them homework for the first time on that Friday when I gave them the list. The homework was to look at the list of 300 words and mark the ones that they didn’t know the definition of.

Eventually, after watching movie after movie and taking nap after nap, Wednesday came around and I felt like I could teach, though afterwards I felt like it was a bad idea. After not talking for a couple of days my throat was pretty beaten up from 5 hours of talking almost non-stop.

I came into class on Wednesday thinking that the students would have their lists all ready, but quickly found that it wasn’t the case. Only a couple of students had done the homework, even though they had two extra days to do it, and some students lost the word list, which I told them to bring to class every day and not to lose. But I made it through the day… barely. I found it extremely difficult to explain some of the most basic words in English. It was extremely tough because I had to use only words they knew, but also because I didn’t know how to explain what such, differ, base, could, and might mean, as well as others. Those words are difficult enough to explain to someone who speaks fluent English. You don’t realize that some words that you use every day in sentences are so hard to explain until you actually try.

Thursday of this week was pretty straightforward. I needed the students to practice the words before the test on Friday. I decided to put the students into groups and have them use the words from the list to create as many sentences as they could. This task seemed to work pretty well as some groups came up with some creative, though grammatical error-filled, sentences. Then we played a game. It was boys vs. girls. One student from each team would come up to the whiteboard and they would have to write the word from the list after I say it. Whoever wrote the word correctly first, earned a point for their team. They really seemed to enjoy the competition aspect, as it was the first time we had done this in my class. The last class of the day got really into it when I decided to join the boys’ team after they fell far behind in the score. I gave one of the boys the list of words and I went head to head with Emma for a few rounds. The students loved, especially when she would beat me because she could write faster than me. They also liked that I was doing some cheating by adding to the boys’ score randomly and that I let Emma cheat when she added to the girls’ score randomly. The best part was when Junior said a work from the list and it sounded like a Marshallese word to me, so I wrote jerbal, which means work. I made the same mistake again and wrote jiddik, which means a little, when Junior had actually said city. Eventually things got out of control and I let them go, they were pleased. Emma ended up getting 100% on her spelling test on Friday.

And Emma wasn’t the only one. The students did quite well overall. They averaged around an 82% on 30 words that I chose from the list. I also chose 3 words and made them write one sentence for each word. After spending hours grading 119 tests each with 30 words and three sentences, I found, however, that we are not ready to move on to other words. I would like to see almost all of the students getting almost all of the words correct because without knowing how to spell and use the 300 most common words in English, I think it would be difficult to get a good grasp on English. I’ll start to make tests from this 300 words list more regular and, because I don’t tell the students which words will be on it, they should be studying them all.

Also, on a funny/weird note, one of my students fell asleep during the test. After number 14, I guess he just conked out. I noticed somewhere around 25 and just decided to let him suffer on his grade for the test. He ended up only missing one of the first fourteen, so he probably could have done quite well if he could have stayed awake.

The weekend is coming to an end here. I’m feeling better than last week, but definitely not 100%. I’m taking the meds still but finding occasional sore throat to be quite a nuisance. I figure that I’ll feel better at some point, and if I don’t… o well.

I took this picture of the stars sometime last weekend. The power was out so it was really dark in the city. This is my favorite star picture I’ve taken so far.

Sep 4

three day weekend

** Once again, I apologize for updating so infrequently. The free Internet by my dorm, which is the only free Internet I can get in this country, doesn’t let me get on to tumblr for some reason. So in order to post something I have to go on the Internet elsewhere, and that requires paying for it. But, I’ll still make a better effort to update for often. **

I’m writing this on Sunday, September 4, 2011. A three-day weekend is coming to an end. Friday was Ri-Jerbal Day, which means Workers’ Day and it’s the equivalent of the American Labor Day, which happens to be tomorrow. Having a long weekend was absolutely awesome. When my after-school staff meeting ended on Thursday I was so excited. I was so excited that I went and took a nap. The weekend actually went by really quickly. I once again made a long weekend to do list and only made a small dent out of it. Procrastination is great. I did it as a student, so it’s only natural that I do it as a teacher as well. The extra day did turn this weekend into my most productive one as a teacher, but it also was a very lazy weekend. I watched 4 movies, and one of them twice (by the way, Mulder girls, one of them was “Joe Versus the Volcano,” a Mulder Classic). I did one exciting thing on Friday night. I’m not going to give details, but this picture is from a high spot in Majuro.

Yesterday I did get out and do something pretty exciting too. I went to the weigh in for a two-day fishing competition, the “All-Micronesian Fishing Tournament.” The day’s winner was a 303-pound marlin.

As for the teaching things, it’s been a very bumpy ride thus far. I’ve had days when I thought things were going just perfectly and it was all falling into place, and then I’ve had days when I felt terrible, sometimes those were actually the same day. I’m now getting a really good idea of the skill level of my students. It’s lower than what I had originally thought, but a couple of reading comprehension tests have given me a good idea. It’s nice to find out what level they are at, but now that I know where they are, I can see how tough it’s going to be. Right now I’m working in finding things that they will enjoy doing. I could teach things to them at their level, but they’re between the ages of 15 and 22 and won’t be interested in third and fourth grade assignments. It’s going to be a matter of finding good activities and adapting them. I’ve been coming up with ideas and putting them down on paper, I just need to figure out a way to make those things happen and hope it works. It’s all going to be tough, but I’m confident that I can do it.

Teaching is also becoming better because it seems like the students are beginning to enjoy my class. Attendance is way up and students are wiling to contribute in class. They respond to my questions and volunteer to read. I’ve finally had a situation where too many students volunteer to read the same paragraph. I’m starting to really like all of my students and care about them. I think that knowing what there level is and seeing where I want to be has been a part of that. I really want them all to do well, which is hard for me to think about because I know how big of a long shot that will be. It pains me to realize that some of these students won’t make it through to the end of the year.

On a lighter note, the woman who was living in my classroom has moved out. I now have access to my classroom at anytime in the day, which really doesn’t actually do that much for me, but it’s official my classroom and no one else’s. I did finally get the opportunity to hang a second whiteboard in my classroom. It is really hard to hang something on a concrete wall. I’m going to be terrified of using the whiteboard, but at least it’s finally up.

In other exciting news, only one outer island volunteer is yet to get out to her island. Almost got rid of them all. In less exciting news, the nearby restaurant does not have ESPN2 or CBS and my Internet is not fast enough to stream the matches, so I will miss the US Open entirely this year. At least I can check scores.

I can’t think of anything else worthwhile to say. I’ll try to update more often. Thank you all for staying posted and keeping track of me. Knowing that there are people out there interested in what I’m doing really makes this a lot easier for me. I miss you all. If anyone feels likes sending me anything, please do. It doesn’t have to be a box of items, you can just send a letter if you have the time. There’s nothing cooler than receiving letter mail here, and I will write you back.

Bar lo eok (see you later)

I took these pictures in the “neighborhood” that’s located right by the dorms. I walk through here almost every day and I love it. It’s very cool to see how people live. And the kids love seeing me walk through there, especially with my camera.

Thursday, August 18

Thursday, August 18

(I wrote this a few days ago. For some reason Tumblr doesn’t work on the internet nearest to my dorm… I’ll have to take a look into that issue.)

I thought today might be a fairly normal day, but I’m living in the Marshall Islands. Things started out fine. I had my lesson plan in my head only, but it was so simple that I didn’t need to put it on paper. I walked in to my classroom and noticed two things. The first thing was the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke, I should note that it was definitely cigarette smoke because it smelled very different from the marijuana smoke I just smelled outside the school. I’m pretty sure one of the teachers was lighting up outside school at about 9:00am. My room had smelled of cigarettes before because there was somebody living in the storage area that’s connected to the back of my room. The second thing I noticed was that the storage room door closed as I opened the door to my room, as in THERE’S STILL SOMEONE LIVING IN THE STORAGE ROOM, which is why it smelled of smoke again. I had fixed the smoke problem once before and I figured I could do it again, but first I’d have to avoid the awkwardness of seeing the woman walk out of the storage room. The director of my school does know that she is staying in there. She has a key to my room, as unhappy as I am about that, and she will only be there until she can get a flight to her outer island school (I hope it’s soon). Since I didn’t want to make it weird, I just walked out of my room and thought I’d make my stop at the teacher’s lounge to check for mail. By the time I got back, she was gone… perfect. I made my room smell like some kind of flower that does not exist in the RMI and things were back on track.

My lesson plan for the day consisted of two parts. That first, they would talk to each other in English about a topic I’d give them, such as “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go” and “If you won $1,000 in a contest, what would you spend it on.” The second, they would write about what they did this summer for about 20-25 minutes, just so I could see what their writing level is. Well, that was fun. The kids, who talk to each other a lot right before they get in to class, are dead silent once they get into my room. I’m not sure if it’s my presence or that I require the talking to be in English, but it’s not easy or enjoyable to force teenagers to talk. The writing practice was easy for me because I just sat back and waited. I didn’t want to help them out too much because I wanted to assess their skills, which range quite heavily. Some students were able to fill up a page with fairly cohesive English, which others ended up with three lines of unintelligible drivel. One of my 11th grade boys, a lefty, wrote his upside-down, like he always writes upside-down. He only wrote about four lines and I had difficulty reading it, but it seems like he knows how to write like that. Another student wrote “What did you do this summer?”, which is what I wrote on the board, over and over on one side of her paper and something I can’t understand at all on the other side. But, at least I can now get an idea of the abilities of my students.

After school Daniel and I decided to cook dinner together. We went to the store to get the fixings for pasta. We figured we should make enough for leftovers to save on money and time, so we bought 4 pounds of noodles and 3 cans of sauce and some onions. Even though the bag of pasta said it serves 32 on it, it didn’t faze us for a second, I realized how ridiculous that number was later when we were finished cooking and had enough to serve… well…. 32. Dinner was delicious; we actually got to eat spaghetti sauce with meat and sausage in it (I know sausage is a meat too). But now we’re left with an overflowing bowl, the biggest bowl we have, of pasta that we had to cram in to the fridge. Daniel labeled it “Daniel and Sam’s Overload Pasta.”

It wasn’t until we’d finished cooking the pasta and tried pouring it into a bowl that would hold half of it that we realized what we were up against. During orientation we could cook about this much to feed 26, and we’re only 2 people. It’ll be pasta for lunch and dinner for the foreseeable future… nothing wrong with that.

Update: It’s the 21st and I’m not sick of it yet. That being said, we’ve hardly made a dent in the pasta. I’ve been covering it with hot sauce and garlic powder just to keep it interesting.

school has begun

First off, I apologize for not updating this more regularly. For those of you who have been navigating here and finding nothing new, I thank you for your dedication. Wireless internet in this country is not a free thing, it’s actually quite expensive. I was never able to have enough time at one time to put together a worthwhile post. I was always on the internet for a few minutes at a time and watching my money drift away. But now I’ve moved into the dorms (my home for the next 10 months) and we have internet… 100 feet away. I’m hoping that we’ll get our internet IN the dorms up in the next couple of days. It’s just a matter of tracking down the person who has the password.

On a separate note. You may have noticed that the gallery section of my blog is quite lame, sorry. Tumblr is a great website (and they didn’t even pay me to say that), but they aren’t the best when you want to upload over 600 pictures like I do. So what I’ll be doing is just upload a few into my blog when appropriate. For those of you who want to see more of the pictures, I’ve been putting them on facebook. If you want to see all 613 of them that I’ve taken and edited so far, head over to my flickr page by clicking here. That should take you to first 499 photos. Another set will eventually exist of the next 500, and so on and so forth.

For those of you that hate just written blogs, go to my flickr page while reading the blog….

From the name of this post, it seems as though school has started. That’s a bit of a sliding scale because I don’t really know what today was. On a normal day (not sure if that exists here), I would start teaching at 9:25. Today, it being the first day, I thought I’d get to school early, around 8:00, to see if the woman living in my classroom has moved out and to make sure it was clean. I also didn’t have a key yet, so I thought I should go find one of those. I’m glad I went early because we had a teacher’s meeting starting at 8:00 and it went until around 8:40 (the school day begins at 8:30). During the meeting I found out that it was a half day, the “director” just slipped that in there. And we had an “orientation” in the gym once the meeting was done, but we actually had to wait for a half hour because the middle school was doing the same thing. Eventually I got to go to my classroom and check things out. No lady living there (yay!). Not cleaned (ugh!). So I sat there waiting for my first class to come in for what would be an awkward 15 minutes of me talking about myself before sending them to the next class. Each class only had between 5 and 8 students in it, and the last class never got to me because it was noon and they probably just went home. These are the items that make me question if school actually began today.

After just telling them a little about me today, I thought a nice follow up to that would be to have them clean the classroom tomorrow. It smells like smoke, except for the parts of the room that smell like poo, which luckily is right where my desk is. I just made a nice trip to the store to get cleaning supplies for my classroom. I’m hoping the students don’t hate me right off the bat by me forcing them to do chores. O well.

So, 11th and 12th grade English Oral and Reading and Spelling (they just added that one on today). I was told to teach the same thing to both grades. So that means that I have to teach the same thing to three 11th grade and two 12th grade classes every day. On the plus side, I only have to make one lesson plan for each day. On the down side, I have to teach the same thing over and over and over and over each day. I’ll take mind numbing redundancy over creativity.

That’s about where things stand right now. I’ve been having a lot of fun here. Orientation was awesome. I know that being here is about to get really tough so I’m a little nervous and stressed about that. I was sad to see all the volunteers go to their islands and leave me behind. I’m sure they’ll all do great at their schools and I look forward to seeing them at mid-service.

As for everyone back home. I miss you all. I hope everyone is doing well where they are. I’ll be sure to update this more often.

Sam’s in the Marshall Islands


That’s right, I’m here. I’m still alive too. It’s been about 5 days (?) so far, and it’s been great. I have had to sleep on the cement floor of a classroom with 5 other guys and 6 girls. I have had to take bucket showers. I have had a cockroach crawl on my arm when I was sleeping. I have sweat more in the last 5 days that I have in my entire lifetime prior to that. But it’s been awesome.

I’ve been able to great great views and great pictures of the lagoon and the ocean. And the people I’ve met are great, all of them. It’s only been about a week since I’ve met them, but it’s felt like much longer. And the best part is that it’s just begun. The teaching training has been difficult and a bit scary. I’m not sure how well I’ll do, but I’m trying to soak in everything I can. And learning Marshallese…. I’m not making too much progress, I’ve actually learned more sign language than Marshallese so far.

I’m on a computer at the National Telecommunications Authority (NTA) in Majuro, so I don’t have pictures or videos to upload yet. I just found out that I can come here and use wi-fi on my computer for not much more than it costs to use theirs. I’ll be doing that soon.

My bills running up so I better get going. Feel free to leave me a note or ask me a question. I should be back in a few days to tell more, and to do it at length.

Yokwe (which means hello, goodbye, and love)

on the way

I’m in the lobby of our hotel in Honolulu. It’s around 10:00pm local time, but for me it feels like 4:00am. Speaking of 4:00am, I have to take a shuttle to the airport at 4:00am local time. So I’ve got time for a few good hours of sleep.

I don’t have much else to say. I’ll have more to say tomorrow (but I’ll actually land Thursday) when I’m in the Marshall Islands!

one week left

It’s been a little bit since I’ve put anything new up here. I’ve been busy, but I now know enough new information to make an interesting post. I been told of my placement and living situation. I also had a going away party (thanks for coming!).

I’ll be teaching English oral and reading skills to 11th and 12th graders at the National Vocational Training Institute (NVTI). I have been told that the NVTI is no longer a vocational school as it was intended, but takes in the students who have missed significant portions of school due to moving, sickness, family issues, and other reasons. It shares a campus with Marshall Islands High School. I will try to find out more about the history of the school and it’s function.

I’ll be living on the campus in a dorm room (AC). I’ll have my own bedroom (with a desk) and bathroom (cold showers). I’ve been told I should have wireless internet in the dorms. I was given much more information as well, but what’s the point in going on and on.

I leave in 8 days. I fly out of Grand Rapids at 8:20 to Milwaukee to Denver to Los Angeles, where I’ll meet the rest of the group, then we’ll all fly to Honolulu and stay the night. We’ll take off for the Marshalls early on Wednesday (6:40ish local time) and land in Majuro Thursday morning (9:20ish local time) having cross the international date line. For those of you who care and those of you who don’t, my watch will say its about 49 hours later than when I started. Yikes.

Despite leaving on July 19th, I get there on July 21st, and that’s when the month-long orientation will begin….

For now, I’m just packing and making sure I have all of what I need (I won’t forget t-shirts this time).

article about me on mlive

press release and placement(?)

This is the press release WorldTeach sent me today. They’ll be sending this to Calvin College for them to put into their publications as well as to the Grand Rapids Press. I’ll let you know if I find it in any of those publications.

From what is said the press release, it appears that I’ve been given a placement. In the press release it says that I’ll be living with a host family in a rural town near the capital (Majuro) and I will be teaching English. I am not sure if this is my official placement or not. I would assume that they would have told me already if they knew my placement, so this may just be a filler that they put in all the press releases for now. But I expect them to let me know officially at some point. Until then, I think I’m going to take this is as my placement and mentally prepare with this in mind.

By the way, don’t I sound smart in the press release. They really used those quotes from my application essay nicely. That is really what I said.

If you can’t tell what it says in the image of the press release, this is what it says:


Michigan Native to Volunteer in Marshall Islands

This July, Grand Rapids, MI native and Calvin College graduate Sam Mindes will depart for one year of service in the Marshall Islands as a WorldTeach volunteer. Mindes—who recently completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology—was accepted into this competitive program because of his commitment to education and public service.  After completing one month of training near the capital city of Majuro, Mindes will live with a Marshallese host family in a rural town near the capital and will be teaching English.

“My main motivation for wanting to be a WorldTeach volunteer in the Marshall Islands is because of my belief in education and its power,” says Mindes, who has been mentoring and tutoring at-risk youth in a variety of environments since age 14. “I believe that education is a human right and I find it tragic when it is not accessible.”

According to Mindes, “as a small group of islands which lack natural resources that could keep it in the global market,” the Marshall Islands needs a strong educational system in order to avoid “falling off the map,” and to keep up in an ever-expanding global economy. “As the larger, more populated countries continue to expand their education fields and increase the standards of the education, it is important for smaller countries to do the same in order to stay relevant.”

Mindes also brings a unique, first-hand experience with cross-cultural relations to the Marshall Islands program: when he was 11, his parents adopted a 5-year-old boy from Romania who spoke no English. “The cultural barriers were difficult to overcome at first,” says Mindes, “but through the learning of our common language, we were able to welcome him into our family.”

WorldTeach has placed teachers in Marshall Island schools at the invitation of the Ministry of Education since 2002. By inviting and fully sponsoring the WorldTeach program in the Marshall Islands, the Ministry has made a serious commitment to bolstering primary and secondary education and learning skills. The new government is very serious about tackling the considerable educational challenges facing this tiny island nation, which UNICEF reports as owning the lowest educational levels of the fourteen Pacific nations tested. Recently, new national curricula and standards have been adopted as part of a vigorous attempt at educational reform, to which WorldTeach volunteers have a unique opportunity to contribute. Marshallese is the native language, but English is commonly spoken throughout the islands.  Since 2001, the country policy has been that English will be the primary language of instruction from Grade 1. 

WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that provides opportunities for individuals to make a meaningful contribution to international education by living and working as volunteer teachers in developing countries. Founded by a group of Harvard students in 1986, the organization responds to the need for educational assistance in developing countries. It also addresses a growing interest among people in the U.S. and elsewhere to serve, teach and learn as volunteers overseas. Since its inception, WorldTeach has placed thousands of volunteer educators in communities throughout Asia, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Pacific.

photo gallery

I’ve added a photo gallery page that you can navigate to on the right side of the page. For now I’ve just put some pictures of the Marshall Islands I was able to find, but I’ll be using my own photos once I’ve arrived.

2 months from today

I recently got word of my departure date. July 19. Two months from today.

I’ll fly the nearly 6 hours from LAX to Hawaii and spend the night there at a hotel. The next morning I’ll be up bright and early for another 5-hour flight. O yeah, and I first have to fly to LA. That’ll be a tough couple of days.

Once I’ve arrived I’ll have to adjust to the time change. The Marshalls are just on the other side of the international date line. So it’s tomorrow there. The flight from Hawaii to Majuro leaves at 6:35am and arrives at 9:44am… the next day.

On a separate note, I’ve finished college. Graduation is in two days, but the work is done. My attention can now turn to preparations for leaving, which include learning some Marshallese, learning some teaching skills, getting police clearance, and still that problem of getting to like coconut.

Of course, I do still have a few vacations to go on before I leave.